How can the independents fight back?

As a small independent business retailing food its easy to be overwhelmed by these tough economic times, as well as the fierce competition from the larger groups.  Indeed having recently experienced the pain of some of our local suppliers and more owner operated restaurants go out of business in Sheffield, it would be easy to concede defeat to the power of the multi-national.  So what can we do?  Well having recently done some work with Andy Hanselman I have had some ideas about how we can show in his words, how we are  “Dramatically and Demonstrably Different”.    Being clear about this is a good start as being involved in day-to-day production and sales its easy to lose sight of what the customer sees or wants.  However, for the sake of the business and the team it’s now the time to do some work on the business instead of just in the business.

The PJ taste Team

First it is important to understand what are we fighting against.  In our case supermarkets and large groups of coffee shops and chains of sandwich shops have developed the power to dominate the market.  It’s important that we don’t simply gripe about this but understand how it has happened.  They have got into this position by providing a customer experience that works.  Making themselves easy to buy from, concentrating on their core offer and creating a clear and defined vision of what we can expect from them.  The problems I believe start as they reach a high level of market saturation.  At this point do we the customer really still have a choice or are we now too far from the point of production to understand or influence the quality of ingredients.  Importantly I also believe that all the focus becomes on short-term profit which does not factor in possible longer term costs to our health and the environment.  The experience can also become rather sterile and does nothing to help families derive the joy from eating and drinking.  The insidious effects of the supermarkets march to domination are now being more fully understood and explained.  Leading the way have been figures like Joanna Blythman who’s 2007 book “Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets” outline the corrosive effect of supermarkets on our farming and our food culture.  More recently the mantle is being taken up by people like the Anslow sisters with their social enterprise hiSbe – standing for how it Should be – people before profit.

So what can we do to encourage new customers to buy from us?  I say new because thankfully our existing customers are very loyal and have already “bought” the benefits of the interestingly seasonal, Sheffield Food that we make.  The following ideas are work in progress but at least should provide a starting point and your input would be most welcome.

1.  Being “Dramatically and Demonstrably Different”

We are dramatically different but demonstrating it is another matter!  It’s about getting the facts out in the open and developing a clear and coherent way of communicating with our target audience.  By being small and flexible enough to source local ingredients that are suited to being grown/produced in our region in a sensible seasonal fashion we can produce the best in terms of flavour, freshness and nutrition.  It’s of course only a “can” because a close working relationship between us and the grower/producer is required to ensure these potential benefits are realised.  It’s about building up trust, understanding the product and each others needs and importantly working together to tackle issues such as efficient distribution.  That is why for example we like to pay our local suppliers cash on delivery, why we consider together how to minimise delivery journeys and how we may discuss for instance utilising all the cuts from the animal with the butcher.

By being close to the growers we have some great stories to tell.  Add in the range of products we make ourselves and the stories get even closer to the source.  Here are some facts to get into the open:

The benefits of local super fresh milk.  We use milk from Mosleys in the Rivelin Valley and from a little further away from our base Our Cow Molly at Dungworth (Eddie from Our Cow Molly is a cousin of the Mosley family).  We also use Our Cow Molly’s ice cream – its great in our milk shakes.  A visitor to our shop would probably not know this at the moment.

Our Cow Molly Branded Milk

The thing about this Sheffield milk is that the milk delivered on Monday comes out of the cows on Monday – the same Monday not the week before!.  This is in stark contrast to most supermarket bought milk which by their own admission is a minimum of five days old before we get the opportunity to purchase it.  This matters nutritionally as the vitamin content is depleted with each day’s age, and the process of protein degradation which sours milk is well on the way.  In addition with the milk coming for a defined, small high quality herd where the farmer knows and respects each animal as an individual the husbandry is as natural as possible, with winter feed being produced on the farm from silage and hay.  This builds trust and a direct connection between us and the producer.  As you can see from the picture above Our Cow Molly are being proactively innovative by branding their milk as the genuine Sheffield article and providing the facts on freshness and quality.  Our aim is to pass this on with passion to our customers.   For further interest here is some information about the Nutritional Aspects of Milk.

PJ taste Citrus Hits™  our very own soft drinks are made from infusions of Yorkshire herbs and fruits and bottled in a re-used J2O bottle (supplied by the Old Bear Brewery in Keighley.  Made in small batches it allows us to use seasonal produce, and the lack of any preservatives or pasteurisation maintains the natural flavours.  My favourite is the amazing Blackberry and Orange which is now very much in season.

Another delivery of re-used J2O bottles

The picture above was taken by Cindy Cheung as part of her Eat Sheffield for a Week challengeduring the Sheffield Food Festival.  It features a Lemon and Lavender Citrus Hit and a PJ taste Ultimate Cheese toastie.  We make these toasties from the Spelt sourdough that we make from organic Yorkshire wheat sourced from Carr House Farm in Driffield.

PJ taste Spelt Sourdough

So the stories are there the job is to communicate them in a systematic and planned way keeping them fresh, interesting and topical.  We are sharpening the tools we have to do this by way of a quarterly newsletter, regular PR features in the local press, a refurbishment of the shop to project a clear external image and concise descriptions/links to the stories inside.  Perhaps boringly but crucially we are systemising these activities and agreeing targets, sharing responsibility for them within our team and investing in a regular focused meeting structure to report back and monitor progress against these goals.  And all this needs to feel spontaneous to our audience – who said running your own business was easy!

2.  Being Easy to Buy From.

Could do better would be the verdict at the moment!  How can we improve?  Heres the ideas:

a)  Research shows that the time people are prepared to queue has reduced to a mere 2 minutes.  As our peak business is over the lunch time period its important to maximise the capacity to serve and reduce queuing to the minimum.  We are re-organising the customer flow accordingly, to also ensure that everyone needs to pass our retail items, and that all the main food offers can be referred to at an external menu.

b)  The ongoing involvement of our staff to share the objectives and benefit from their experience is vital but something we have failed to make the most of on occasions.  Hopefully we will do our group training in a more planned way than Starbucks famously did in 2008.  Being easy to buy from starts with that front line experience, and developing it relies on the eyes and ears of the staff on the ground.

c)  Would an on-line order system work for the delivery of lunch to your desk.  Order by 11 and we deliver by 1pm?  Is this too big an extension of our business model?

d) Our business is currently Monday to Friday mainly catering for that early morning cappuccino, a grab and go lunch and some interesting hot dishes to eat in.  Is there an opportunity to open for an early evening Bistro Night?  Or to offer a high quality simple meal for people to buy on the way home and enjoy in the evening.  We could feature a key ingredient each month and produce a meal for 2 for £10 (£10 + VAT to eat in) which would be convenient and a direct alternative to a leading supermarkets headline offer.  Too copy cat, too much brand extension or another idea worth exploring?

e)  What do we do about opening on quieter times in our case Saturdays.  With a decline in sales its easy to see savings in staff time by reducing opening hours.  Is this the answer or would it be better to find a new market.

These ideas are part of a journey but the pressure is on to ensure we make the right turns in the near future.  The opportunity to work in partnership with external groups who share our desire to ensure that we all have a variety of food choices on the high street in the future is vital.  We welcome these opinions and support and look forward to shaping and telling the stories for many years to come.